Mississippi to end inmate conjugal visits in 2014
Mississippi to end inmate conjugal visits in 2014
PARCHMAN, Miss. (Dec. 19) – The first state to allow conjugal visits to its prison population more than 100 years ago will bring the program to a close as of Feb. 1, 2014. The head of Mississippi’s prison system said he is terminating the program due to the financial burden of the arrangement and the number of infants being born as a result of it.
Commissioner Christopher Epps, of the Mississippi Department of Corrections (MDOC), announced his decision this week on the heels of Republican statesman Richard Bennett’s plans to reintroduce his bill to end conjugal visits during the 2014 legislative session.
Epps said, however, that his decision to end the program had nothing to do with Bennett’s bill – which initially failed in 2012 – and died in committee without a vote.
Epps said when the extended family visitation program – which allowed three-day visits on the facility grounds in separate housing – ended in September 2013, he notified MDOC staffers that he also planned to dissolve the conjugal visit program.
“There are costs associated with the staff’s time, having to escort inmates to and from the visitation facility, supervising personal hygiene and keeping up the infrastructure of the facility,” Epps said. “Then, even though we provide contraception, we have no idea how many women are getting pregnant only for the child to be raised by one parent.”
“It just amazes me that Mississippi, as conservative as we are, that we even have conjugal visitation,” Bennett, R-Long Beach, told The Clarion-Ledger. “They’ve even built apartments (at prisons) for it. … How many children result from this that we are probably paying for their care? … They issue them condoms, but who’s going to check or enforce that they use them?”
MDOC minimum security inmates are given one hour for a conjugal visit and are provided with: soap, condoms, tissue, sheets, pillowcases, a face towel and a bath towel. The inmate and their spouse, as well as the room, are thoroughly searched before and after each visit for security reasons.
Inmates must be legally married (heterosexual) and have a marriage certificate on file with the prison. Inmates at risk of transmitting HIV or other sexually transmitted diseases to a non-infected person are not eligible for the program.
Epps said of the 22,000 inmates in MDOC custody, only 155 were allowed conjugal visits within the last fiscal year.
MDOC currently oversees three state prisons, 15 regional facilities, and four private prisons. Federal inmates are not eligible for the program.
Mississippi is just one of six states that allow conjugal visitation for inmates. Others are California, Connecticut, New Mexico, New York and Washington.
Mississippi also has one of the nation’s highest prison populations, second only to Louisiana.
The Mississippi State Penitentiary (MSP), also known as Parchman, where the nation’s first conjugal visits originated, dates back to 1901 and was the world’s largest penal farm system operating on and as a 22,000-acre plantation. Prison authorities believed that if the black male prisoners – who far outnumbered white prisoners – were allowed to have sex, they would be more productive in the prison’s farming industry. Prostitutes were brought in on Sunday afternoons and charged $0.50 for their services, an exorbitant amount at the time, considering many men worked a 12-hour day just to make a dollar.
Reportedly, female inmates were allowed the privilege in 1972.
In his article, “The Conjugal Visit at Mississippi State Penitentiary,“ published in 1962, author Columbus B. Hopper said shacks, tool sheds and an ill-suited building known as the “red house” were initially used for conjugal visits at Parchman, until prisoners constructed a permanent brick structure with several motel-like rooms during the early 1960s.
“The fact that the only institution in the United States in which conjugal visiting is practiced considers the visits important and successful enough to include facilities for such visits in future building and construction plans may indicate that…the conjugal visit…has developed from an unofficial practice into one that is likely to endure,” Hopper said in his article.
The Mississippi penal system also allowed inmates to leave the facility under their Holiday Suspension program. Out of 47 institutions surveyed in 1956, Parchman was the only prison that permitted convicts to go home for a period of 10 days for reasons other than that of an emergency. State and prison officials said the program proved successful and was a crucial element in the rehabilitation of the inmates.
Another arrangement at Parchman was the family visitation program which was said to preserve marriages and reduce homosexuality in prison while boosting inmate morale.
“It is one way to keep a man from messing up if he knows his wife is coming,” one inmate interviewed by Hopper said.
The most recent requirements for the conjugal visitation program is that an MDOC inmate must be on good behavior and cannot have a rule violation report for fighting, swearing, or more than 200 other infractions for at least six months.
Cooper “Pete” Misskelley, the former warden of the Carroll-Montgomery Regional Correctional Facility (CMRCF) in Vaiden, Miss., said during his eight years at the prison, conjugal visits did assist in inmate reformation.
“As far as keeping them in line and making them follow the rules, it’s a very good management tool,” Misskelley said. “If you give an inmate certain things that they can do – something that’s a privilege – not that you have to give it to them, but if they do the right thing, they feel they can attain that goal.”
An unnamed inmate interviewed by Hopper, who had been in several different prison institutions, agreed that conjugal visits helped maintain the peace in prison. He said: “In [Parchman], I have seen less rioting, less homosexuality, and an altogether different attitude in the inmates in general. I have also seen many families remain intact here which I sincerely believe would have been broken in any other institution…because these visits allowed these families to continue a normal and healthy married life on visiting days and many problems were solved during the privacy and closeness of these visits what would have resulted in violent arguments and hard feelings where these visits were not allowed.”
Even with the conjugal visits, Tara Booth, an MDOC spokesperson, said sexual assaults among the inmates are documented yearly. Misskelley said even so, the program was good for the inmates.
“It’s a very important thing to a male inmate,” he said. “In prison, you have an inmate with his hormones thrashing locked up with 50 or 60 other men to a tier in a dormant environment. Anything that you can have to lower the tension in this area is a good thing as far as management is concerned.”
Misskelley said he believes if an inmate follows the rules, even if a mistake in judgment resulted in his imprisonment, he should receive that privilege.
“If a fella is married and he’s diligently trying to hold his family together, then a conjugal visit is in order so they can be rehabilitated and work toward that. But a lot has to be in place before they can be awarded that. It needs to be something that will help them to be better citizens when they get out. And I really think the visitation was a part of that. Being able to visit their family on visiting days was the best thing to ever happen.”
A former prison guard at CMRCF who worked with the conjugal visitation program said the termination of the privilege will likely result in more problems for the state’s prison system.
“This is all some people have to look forward to,” said the former guard, who did not want to be identified. “And I do believe it would be bad if they stop it because that’s the only way some inmates see their wife or their husband. They know they’re coming…once a week. Because after a certain number of days, you’re not allowed to see anybody.”
MDOC facilities set their own visitation days which can be weekly, except on the fifth Saturdays and Sundays.
As far back as the 1960s, proponents of conjugal visits said the cessation of the program could result in additional disciplinary issues.
“I know one thing for sure, I wouldn’t want to be around this place if the conjugal visit were taken away,” one Parchman guard told Hopper. “It would be the greatest blow to the morale of the inmates which I can imagine.”
“While both the extended family visitation and conjugal visit program involve a small percentage of inmates, the cost coupled with big-ticket items adds up,” Epps said. “The benefits of the programs don’t outweigh the cost in the overall budget.”
Misskelley said he has mixed feelings about the decision.
“I believe there would be some tension,” Misskelley said. “But I don’t think it will make or break the inmate. But it was a tool to help him to try to keep his family in place and be close to his wife. But I’m sure most of the people in the free world wouldn’t go along with the idea of conjugal visits. They just want to lock up all the prisoners and throw away the key. But that’s not the idea. The idea is to try to change them and keep them from committing further crimes and making their lives more poisonous. I really wanted to help these fellas and help them be the kind of folks the Lord would be proud of.”
Follow Monica Land on Twitter at @monicajland